November 17, 2023
• Access to transportation and high cost of living are major concerns for Needham’s elderly residents, according to data shared with the Select Board Tuesday.
Julie McCarthy, the town’s epidemiologist, reported findings from the Healthy Aging Assessment, which surveyed 738 people aged 60 and older in the summer of 2022, asking them about health care, food access, their living situation and other demographics. Researchers also gathered data from four focus groups and 23 key informant interviews.
She also shared results from the Community Health Assessment, which evaluated residents’ equitable access to care, social determinants of health and substance use and mental health by using data across local, state and national agencies. McCarthy paired some results with those from the 2021 MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey, which polled Needham middle and high school students.
The vast majority of elderly residents surveyed drive themselves, while about 23% of them report walking very often. Some of those living in Needham Housing Authority properties complained about their distance from Needham Center.
Very few people 60 and older reported using transportation services or public buses or shuttles, likely because they’re unaware they exist — about 56% of NHA residents reported they were unfamiliar with public transportation services in a 2020 survey.
“That, I think, is the part we were most concerned about,” McCarthy said, “because we know that there is a need for better transportation resources, but what this highlights is that perhaps we’re not advertising those resources to the folks who need them the most.”
Among NHA residents, about 34% stated they had trouble running errands, possibly due to a lack of accessible transit.
The town found transportation services, vaccine clinics and resources at the Center at the Heights and Needham Free Public Library to be strengths among the aging population in town. But housing, cost of living, isolation and transportation and driving were among the identified challenges based on the survey.
When Clerk Heidi Frail asked how transportation could simultaneously be a positive and negative, McCarthy explained that the few residents who do use it had an overwhelmingly positive experience, but people expressed concern over the availability and abundance of the rides.
Needham received a grant of $100,000 — split between last year and this year — for rides to medical appointments, Director of Health and Human Services Timothy McDonald said. In 2016, Needham had one van, he said. Seven years later, the town has three handicap-accessible vans and a car, thanks to local aid and state grants.
Though their offerings have improved, McDonald said there are still limitations.
“But one of the challenges is that a cab ride into (Massachusetts General Hospital) and back would be pretty expensive,” McDonald said, “and you wouldn’t get too many appointments out of it.”
Housing and cost of living
Nearly half of seniors are “somewhat,” “very” or “extremely” worried about the cost of living, the recent assessment found.
Though most Needhamites own their home, nearly 50% of those who rent — about 16% of the total population — are cost-burdened, meaning they spend 30% or more of their income on housing, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2021. The state and national numbers are similar, though Needham’s is slightly higher.
On the 2022 Needham Community Survey, locals ranked the cost of living, availability of affordable quality housing and variety of housing options poorly.
“Needham is unaffordable to those who wish to age in place,” one Healthy Aging respondent shared.
The median income in Needham is $225,747, which is more than double the state median income of $112,543, based on 2021 U.S. Census Bureau data. The national median is about $85,000.
That financial comfort, however, is not shared in all Needham households. For local single mothers with children under 18, the median income sits at $45,878. Those families also experience higher rates of poverty, McCarthy said.
One significant missing demographic was 18 to 59-year-olds.
“That’s a large group of residents, and that’s because those folks don’t fall into our youth surveys, and they also don’t fall into our aging surveys,” McCarthy said. “A community health survey or something similar would really help us obtain this kind of data in the future.”
Based on recommendations from Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital – Needham, McCarthy pointed to the Needham Public Health Division’s personal priorities: cost of living burden, access to transportation resources for health care needs, mental health and substance use and physical health, heart disease and other risk factors.
A Community Health Improvement Plan comes next, which will lay out potential solutions to the issues residents voiced. McCarthy said they anticipate the plan will be published by the end of the year.
Looking to budget season, McDonald said the Public Health Department hopes to make their four ARPA-funded staffers — including McCarthy — permanent fixtures. Their positions are funded through the end of 2024, he said, but they are looking to fund them through FY 2026.